January 29, 2017 “Foolishness” – I Corinthians 1:18-31
I Corinthians 1:18-31
January 29, 2017 – Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Does sacrifice make sense? Roger Ebert the film critic didn’t think so. My wife Beth taught a week-long course on philosophy and film at the beginning of this month. She had her class watch “Of Gods and Men.” It’s the story of French Christian monks in an Algerian village surrounded by Muslims with whom they’ve developed a ministry and a peaceful relationship. That relationship is threatened by Islamic terrorists. When they realize that they may be killed, the monks vote to stay and keep helping the village rather than flee for their lives.
In a review of the film back in 2011, Ebert called it “easy emotion” arguing that the wiser course would have been for the monks to run away so they could keep helping people somewhere else. He said, “Between the eight of them, they have perhaps a century of life of usefulness remaining. Do they have a right to deprive those who need it of their service? In doing so, are they committing the sin of pride?” At least one of Beth’s Christian college students agreed. Better to run away to serve another day than to stay and die.
Our text begins with verse 18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” The story of the selfless sacrifice of nine men trying to follow Jesus’ example on the Cross still seems like foolishness to some people. In fact, the whole idea of self-sacrifice, of deliberately being willing to suffer, may seem absurd.
The Cross of Jesus Christ may seem, from the perspective of practical wisdom, a pointless waste of a good life. In C. S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce, there’s a “Fat Ghost” who has written a paper on how Jesus would have changed His teachings had He only lived longer. We may laugh at such nonsense, but still suppose that what Jesus taught and did does not have much practical application in our lives and in our politics. It’s better, we may believe, to keep ourselves safe and secure than to risk losing anything.
Our challenge as Christians in America in 2017 is to demonstrate in the way we live that we really believe the second part of verse 18, “but to us who are being saved [the message of the Cross] is the power of God.” What looks like impractical foolishness is in fact the road to salvation and a demonstration of God’s power.
I’ll be honest. This passage troubles me… a lot. Verse 19 quotes God in Isaiah 29:14, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Friends, I devoted the greatest part of my education to the pursuit of wisdom. I studied philosophy in college and graduate school and I still read philosophical articles and books whenever I have time. “Philosophy” means “love of wisdom,” but here is God saying He will destroy wisdom. What am I going to do?
What I’m going to do is explain to you that Paul is not talking about, God is not talking, about real wisdom. This passage is not about the pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness to which real philosophers aspire. The Bible values true wisdom. Jesus said that His life and teaching are wisdom. No, Paul’s rant against wisdom here is about something else. It’s about the kind of false wisdom folks in Corinth were fond of.
In Corinth and in the ancient world in general, there was a kind of public, supposedly practical wisdom, practiced by those who were clever, who could speak and debate with eloquence, who could convince other people to do what they said and wield power. That’s the kind of wisdom Paul is against, which God is against. It’s the kind of wisdom that says it knows how to make a deal, how to get things done. That’s the kind of wisdom God says He is going to destroy.
Paul knows that real wisdom, like the wisdom gained from studying history, shows us that nothing good has ever come from the false wisdom of power and influence. So he asks in verse 20, “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
By the way, that’s the right translation. The last question is not about the “philosopher of this age,” like the NIV and other translations put it. “Philosopher” is a Greek word and that’s not it. Someone who got a bad grade in philosophy in college came up with that translation, but it’s really about those who debate, who dispute, who challenge the truth.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we are witnessing in our country how God is making foolish the wisdom of the world. We are seeing just how foolish it can be. The “wise,” the scribe and the debater are all being exposed for what they are. Those who claim to be clever deal makers are being proved idiots. Those who send out an endless stream of words are being found liars. And those who debate and dispute simple facts are being seen for the fools they are. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
So please don’t read our text here and imagine that Paul is calling Christian believers to toss away their reason and intelligence and join the parade of irrationality and foolishness sweeping our world. That’s not it at all. More than ever, Christians need to come out on the side of true wisdom, on the side of reason, on the side of what is right, on the side, as my wife never tires of saying, of what is true and beautiful and good. That’s God’s wisdom, demonstrated at its peak in the Cross of our Savior Jesus Christ.
Verse 21 says that it is God’s own wisdom that He does not let the world know Him through that false wisdom. We will never get to know the Lord by winning a debate or by making a good deal or by consolidating our power in this world. All our Scriptures say the same thing this morning. Psalm 15 says the one who knows God is the one who does what is right and speaks the truth. Micah says that all God wants is mercy, justice and humility. And Jesus told us, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted; Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth; Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.”
“God,” says Paul at the end of verse 21, “decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation,”—that’s the proclamation of the Cross, the proclamation of weakness and self-sacrifice and doing what’s right even to your own hurt as the psalm said—“to save those who believe.” No deal, no plan for national security, no supposedly wise government program is going to save us. Only the foolishness of the Cross of Jesus can save us.
In verse 22, Paul talks about the conflict of two cultures that got mixed together in the Corinthian church. There were Jews and there were Gentile Greeks. They saw things differently, but neither way by itself was the right way. Neither way was the way of the Cross. “For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom.”
Jewish folks were looking for some great, life-changing, miraculous religious experience. Give us a sign. Let us have an encounter with God that we can really feel. Make it authentic, make it genuine. When God comes to us that way, with some real power that we can see for ourselves, then we’ll buy in.
Greeks, on the other hand, wanted to be persuaded. Convince us. Show us that Christianity addresses the issues. Win the debate. Speak eloquently and let us exercise our freedom of choice and decide for ourselves. When God comes to us that way, offering us a deal we can’t refuse, then we will choose His side.
“But,” says Paul, in verse 23, “we proclaim Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” A crucified Jesus is still a stumbling block, still foolishness to many Americans. We still want some practical demonstration that Jesus is really effective, that He can get things done. And we still want Jesus to win some sort of war of words, to triumph in debates on Facebook and Twitter. What Jesus actually gives us is crucifixion.
Whatever the “American dream” supposedly is, nobody supposes that the answer to it is crucifixion. Whatever we think we want most of the time, it hasn’t got much to do with a violent, humiliating public execution. In terms of our own 21st century American wisdom, the Cross of Jesus Christ is still foolishness. And we must not forget that.
Our family has been to the site of ancient Corinth. One of the most visible features of the ruins you can see there is the agora, the open shopping center. Laid out in carefully quarried limestone are rows of shops, each with its arched doorway. We walked through an ancient shopping mall of what must have been successful retailers. Once it was full of prosperous people, buying fine clothing and beautiful decorations for their homes, purchasing healing medicine and good food. The place was alive with women window shopping and kids hanging out and men putting the roof on the next shopping space being constructed. Now it’s all roofless and empty, with the wind and dust blowing through it.
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,” says God. If our wisdom, if our practical wisdom as Americans is merely to prosper enough so that we can have beautiful places to shop and money to spend in them, that sort of wisdom will perish. If our wisdom is to protect ourselves from the rest of the world by any means possible, then that wisdom will be defeated. If our wisdom is merely to maintain and promote freedom of choice to do whatever we please, then that wisdom will crumble into endless boredom as we find nothing worth choosing.
That’s why you and I are here today, why we keep coming back to this symbol that hangs before us. We are coming to the reality that stands behind the symbol, Christ crucified. According to our American standard of practical wisdom, it’s all foolishness. It’s not going to make us richer or healthier or safer or more free. “But,” says verse 24, “to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks [let’s add, “and Americans”], Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Our hope is not a great America again. Our hope is a great God who in an incredible act of wisdom became weak and poor to save us. That’s what Paul means by verse 25, “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” We don’t need to be wise or strong according to the world’s standards, because even in the foolishness and weakness of the Cross, God has all the wisdom and strength we need.
That’s why the Christian church did not begin in the philosophical schools of the Greeks or in the republic of the Romans. Neither endless debate nor political procedure is going to produce salvation. Only a wisdom born of love for a Savior who came to die for us brings salvation.
Let me repeat it to be sure we understand. Christians don’t abandon wisdom. Verse 26 says that not many of the first Christians “were wise by human standards.” That doesn’t mean they were all fools. Paul and John and Peter were certainly no dummies. They just didn’t look wise to those who expected wisdom to be powerful, to come from a good family, to put on a good show out in the world.
Verses 27 and 28 are just Paul’s way of saying what Jesus said to us in the Beatitudes this morning. “God chose what is foolish to shame the wise.” Blessed are the poor in spirit, the people folks laugh at because they let themselves get walked on by others. But that humility which accepts a cross of sacrifice is going to shame those whose wisdom is about taking care of yourself instead of worrying about others.
“God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong.” “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” This planet is not going to belong to people who make it a point to be strong. The Tower of Babel was God’s first lesson about that. The strong are going to be shamed, embarrassed when God’s work is all done. We want to be on the side of those who are weak.
“God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” the nothing people of this world. We don’t want to “be something.” We want to be nothing so that God can make us something that’s really worth being.
It’s possible even at this point to get it all wrong. It’s easy to be tempted, I know I am tempted, to simply look with contempt on all the foolish wisdom being spouted around us. It’s very tempting to just isolate myself and be content that at least some of us know the truth, some of us have clean hands and pure hearts and love Jesus. Everyone else can just go to hell in the proverbial handbasket. But then I realize that Paul, that Jesus won’t let me sit here in self-satisfied righteousness because we’ve got real wisdom and all those others out there have it wrong. No, Micah said “Love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with your God.”
Verse 29 says that God is not destroying all that phony wisdom and strength to make those of us on His side proud of our own wisdom and strength. No, it’s “so that no one might boast in the presence of God.” The wisdom of the Cross is not given to us to make us proud of ourselves. If anything we should be ashamed of ourselves that the death of the Son of God was what it took to save us from our sins.
No, verse 30 tells us, the point of God’s wisdom is that we see what has always been true. “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” Our life is in Jesus Christ, nowhere else, not in our own wisdom nor in wealth nor in power nor in safety nor in health. Jesus is our truth, our beauty, our goodness, our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption.” So, unlike those who wield the world’s wisdom and power, we know that we have nothing to boast about, that we are not great or strong or wealthy or good. It’s only in Jesus that we have any of that. Verse 31 says, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
If Jesus crucified is the source and fountain of our wisdom, the practical reality is that we will often look foolish. To live in a way that makes sense if God in Christ has died for us, will make no sense in a world of values and ideas that does not accept that sacrifice. You and I will frequently look like fools if we try to live that way.
God has given us a whole roster of examples of Christians willing to be fools for Jesus. St. Francis walked away from a prosperous, comfortable life to live as a beggar and preach the Gospel to those even poorer than he. He was known as a fool for Christ.
Russian Orthodoxy has a role for “Fools for Christ.” It’s a special designation for those who give up their possessions and live a life of almost bizarre behavior, going half-clothed in all sorts of weather, and being willing to speak uncomfortable truth to people who don’t want to hear it, including to the Tsar. Basil of Moscow caught Ivan the Terrible standing in church one day pondering how he would decorate his summer palace. The “fool” reprimanded Ivan for his unworthy thoughts while God was being worshipped.
A recent Russian “fool for Christ” is St. Xenia. While a church was being built, she would go out after the workmen went home. She spent nights going up and down a ladder carrying bricks to the top of the walls so that they would be there for the workmen when they arrived in the morning. It sounds nuts, but for Orthodox Christians it’s a sign of the selflessness and service that is part of following the One who was crucified.
Being a fool for Christ means continuing to believe His crazy story and to keep showing up to praise His name in worship, even when you can’t see that it’s solving your problems or improving your happiness. Foolishness for Jesus means praying for others, even when they don’t know about it, and even when it doesn’t seem to be doing any good. Being a fool for Christ means trying to make friends with someone you find strange, even if they reject you. Fooling around for Jesus means, like St. Xenia, that we find opportunities to be helpful and kind, even when it costs us sleep or money or comfort.
Our world needs more wisdom, not less. It needs less foolishness, not more. But the foolishness we need to reject must be the boastful, proud foolishness of power. And the wisdom we seek must be the honest, humble weakness of Jesus. He died because it takes what looks like foolishness to save us. And the real wisdom, the truly rational thing to do, is to study and follow the foolishness of His death, so as to join Him in the great salvation of His life. The only ones who can save the world are fools, fools for Christ.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj